Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Book Review: The Swell

By Jami Denison

Snowboarding is basically surfing on a mountain, so it’s not surprising that thriller writer Allie Reynolds has followed up her “locked room” murder mystery Shiver (reviewed here), about snowboarders being targeted in the French Alps, with The Swell, about surfers being targeted on an Australian beach. Both books feature an athletic female protagonist trying to discern which one of her friends is a killer. While Shiver was a layered, complicated book, featuring past and present and complicated rivalries, The Swell asks a question that even non-athletes contemplate: How far will people go to win their friends’ approval? 

Kenna and Mikki grew up together in England, best friends who loved to surf. But when Kenna gave up the sport after her fiancé drowned and moved to London, Mikki took off for Australia. When Mikki tells Kenna she’s engaged to a guy she barely knows, Kenna drops everything to fly to Australia to stop the wedding. Instead, Kenna finds herself draw in by Jack and the rest of the couple’s friends—Clemente, Victor, Sky, and Ryan. Hardcore surfers and backpackers, they call themselves The Tribe and have each taken a vow to train hard, work through their personal fears, encourage each other, and guard the location of their secret beach with their lives. Kenna is especially impressed with the work that Mikki has put in—formerly a timid surfer, afraid of moths, Mikki now seems fearless. But after watching the group angrily defend their turf, and learning about previous Tribe members who have disappeared or even died, Kenna begins to have serious misgivings about her new friends. And then a body washes up on the beach…

The Swell is mostly told through Kenna’s first-person point-of-view, and she’s the perfect protagonist for this type of story. Initially wary of the Tribe—especially of Sky, who seems like a cult leader—Kenna also likes to push herself physically, and soon she finds herself back in the water as a result of their encouragement. With her sports therapist background, Kenna almost seems like she might challenge Sky as the group’s alpha. But as she seeks to find out the group’s secrets, she might end up their next victim. 

Occasionally, Reynolds goes into the first person POV of other characters as well. While this type of structure isn’t too unusual with thriller writers—many of them provide an anonymous look into a killer’s thoughts or motivations—Reynolds takes it a step further by revealing the killer at the halfway mark. It changes the feel of the tension in the book and lets readers know exactly who are the sitting ducks as well.

Reynolds also touches on issues beyond the mystery, such as immigration and “localism,” which gives the characters a resonance beyond the immediate story. And her descriptions of the physicality of surfing, the water, the woods, the heat and the insects bring the setting right into readers’ homes. 

While The Swell will be compared to Reynolds’ debut novel, it also has much in common with Rachel Hawkins’s January release, Reckless Girls, which also features a remote beach and a group of tourists   whose members begin to disappear. Both books are terrific beach reads. 

British-born Allie Reynolds is a former professional snowboarder who gave up the snow for the surf and life in Australia. I look forward to seeing which athletic feats she’ll incorporate into her next mystery. 

Thanks to Putnam for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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